The hierarchy of Men’s tennis has seen much fluctuation over the past 50 years.
From the beginning of the Open Era in 1969 to present day, we have seen several truly special talents, many of whom have a valid argument in laying claim to being the ‘best’.
So how do we run the rule over this batch of history makers? Should you really weigh up Open Era tennis vs what came before? And does it purely boil down to how many Grand Slam titles a player has won?
RadioTimes.com has considered a variety of factors to identify just who deserves a place on this list, from major titles, legacy, longevity, natural talent, play style, and the dreaded head-to-head records.
Of course, not every great player can make the list (including one American who may have one choice phrase to shout about his exclusion), but nevertheless, let’s start the countdown.
10. Andy Murray
Undoubtedly the most important player in British tennis history, but maybe the unluckiest in the sports history? Regardless of the looming shadow of those names that may or may not occupy the top spots on this list, there’s a reason the phrase ‘the big four’ existed for well over a decade.
Murray went toe to toe with legends to be, cutting off slices of his own history along the way, including becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon since 1936 (he’s still the only man to beat Djokovic in a Wimbledon final), leading Great Britain to a historic Davis Cup win, and standing alone as the only player in history to win back-to-back Olympic singles titles. And while I can already hear the shouts of “But he only has three Grand Slams”, trophies have never been a completely fair reflection of talent.
Murray has the sixth most final appearances, titles, and match wins in the history of the men’s game, and when you factor in that he was the only man between 2004-2022 not named Djokovic, Federer, or Nadal to top the rankings, his place on this list is more than earned.
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9. Jimmy Connors
Connors was a title machine in the mid 70’s. Combining one of the best service return’s the game had seen at the time with a never say die and often (way) over-the-top attitude.
Despite occasionally strange on court antics, the American spent 160 consecutive weeks atop the world rankings from 1974-1977, and still holds the records for most tour titles in the Open Era (109).
Add in eight Grand Slam titles, and a rip-roaring rivalry with a legend many will be aggrieved is not on this list, in John McEnroe, that’s quite the CV for one of the game’s most famous left-handers.
8. Ivan Lendl
Anchored by his sport altering top-spin forehand, Lendl, much like the man he would coach 30 years later (Andy Murray) had to overcome several tests before being allowed into the Grand Slam winners enclosure. Also, like Murray he was faced with the stiffest competition, regularly facing off with both Connors and McEnroe (all be it retiring with a winning record over both) and losing his first four major finals. But once over the line at the 1984 French Open, the often-stoic Czech never looked back, collecting eight Slam titles and spending over 200 weeks at #1.
7. Andre Agassi
Agassi was by some distance the greatest returner the game had seen up until that point and balanced it with a unique ability to grind down his opponents. These components helped Agassi become one of only five men in the Open era to complete the career Grand Slam, with the American the first to have completed it on three different surfaces (US Open and Australian Open didn’t switch to hard courts until 1978 & 88 respectively). A fascinating individual both on and off the court, and retiring with a healthy eight slams, Agassi is most remembered for being one half of a 34-match epic rivalry that dominated the 90’s.
6. Pete Sampras
The other half of the rivalry that consumed men’s tennis in the 90’s and even spilled over to the new millennia. ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras was a ruthless competitor, possessing arguably the best serve in the history of the tour. A weapon he used to devastating effect, finishing his career with 14 major titles, although unlike his great rival, he never managed to complete the career Grand Slam, failing to claim the French Open (only appearing in one semi-final).
However, Sampras did have the final word in their decade long tilt, beating Agassi in the 2002 US Open final, before riding off into the retirement sunset, a fairy-tale farewell extremely rare among elite athletes.
5. Björn Borg
You could make a case for Borg being tennis’ first superstar. After bursting onto the scene as a teenage French Open Champion, the golden-haired Swede showed no signs of slowing down, dominating Clay and Grass court tennis with his majestic style, collecting 6 Roland Garros titles in 9 years, and winning on the hallowed turf of Wimbledon five consecutive times between 1976-1980. Borg was also the first player to earn over a £1 million in prize money, ushering in a new era for the sport.
4. Rod Laver
Laver is the only man on this list to have played before the Open Era. In fact, by the start of the Open Era (the time when professionals were allowed to play major tournaments) in 1968, Laver was already 30. However, this didn’t stop him achieving much of the same success he had prior, with his haul of 74 tour titles still seeing him 7th on the Open Era standings. The Australian’s crowning achievement is his status as the only player in history to have completed the calendar slam twice. His sweep of all the majors in 1969 remains the only time in the Open Era a man has completed the (almost) impossible feat.
3. Roger Federer
It would have been almost unthinkable, even a few years ago to not have Federer a top a list of this nature. To many even the word tennis is synonymous with the Swiss maestro. The 20-time Grand Slam Champion spent over two decades conducting symphonies on the world’s most famous courts, sweeping all before him in the 2000’s, winning three of the four Grand Slams in the same year on three separate occasions, including five consecutive Wimbledon and US Open titles (he remains the only player to have won three different majors on at least five occasions). Often praised for his calm demeanour, who can forget the outpouring of emotion following his Australian Open final victory over long-time rival and friend Nadal in 2017 after a lengthy injury lay-off.
But stats and moments aside, Federer’s effortless nature on court provided a spectacle for all, with his patented one-handed backhand a blueprint that many have tried to follow. Has tennis ever looked so perfect? I don’t think so.
There are few in any field, let alone in sport who can lay claim to being categorically the best at anything. However, in the case of Rafa its arguable (not really) that he is as good at playing tennis on clay as anyone as ever been at anything…ever. Nadal hold 14 titles at Roland Garros and boasts a quite ridiculous 112-3 win/loss record since he first stepped foot on the red clay of Paris in 2005.
While it’s easy to become fixated on these bonkers numbers, Nadal’s consistency, and longevity away from Clay is also worth noting. He sits as one of only four men to have won each slam at least twice (a list not including rival Federer) and spent a record 18 years straight ranked inside the world’s top 10. With a joint-record 22 Grand slams, who’s to say the King of Clay won’t end his career as the king of tennis?
1. Novak Djokovic
It’s fair to say a more than a justifiable case could be made to have the ‘big three’ in any order you please, but top spot here belongs to the man who has spent more weeks at the summit of the world rankings than anyone in history. Something not many predicted when he won his first (of 10) Australian Open titles in 2008 and disrupted the ‘Fedal’ dominance.
Djokovic’s game is built on both precision and speed, luring opponents into sometimes gruelling rallies before letting fly with powerful and pinpoint darts. He is undeniably the most complete player the game has ever seen, with abilities that adapt to whichever surface he’s on.
Novak remains the only player to have beaten Nadal twice at the French Open and is the only man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four slams at the same time. Djokovic also sits a mere one title behind Federer’s tally of Wimbledon titles (thanks in part to the incredible end to the final at the all-England club in 2019).
Currently tied with Nadal on 22 Grand Slams, it won’t be long until it’s an undeniable fact that the great Serb is the GOAT.